Is Big Environment Ready to Say America Is Hooked on Cars?

nrdc_website.jpg
The NRDC’s "Beyond Oil" campaign. Are national environmental groups ready to shift their strategy?

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal’s Joseph White, who covers the auto industry in his "Eyes on the Road" column, made a prediction that livable streets advocates will welcome. In the next year, he forecast, national environmental groups will re-focus their Congressional lobbying to emphasize reducing the amount Americans drive:

Last year’s energy debate centered around CAFE, the acronym for Corporate Average Fuel Economy. The next phase of the energy/climate change debate over cars will force us to learn another piece of technical jargon: VMT, or vehicle miles traveled.

Now, many of the environmentalists, politicians and scientists who made the case for boosting vehicle fuel efficiency are turning their attention to the problem of how much we drive — and the legacy of 20th century land use and transportation choices.

Deron Lovaas, a transportation researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council, predicts that the debate over how to curb driving will come to the fore next year, when Congress is scheduled to debate a massive bill to fund transportation projects using federal gasoline tax revenue. The NRDC and other environmental groups, fresh from their victory in the fuel-efficiency debate, are turning their attention to issues such as reforming land use rules to promote denser development and concentrating more public spending on better mass transit systems for metro areas, he says.

If this shift indeed comes to pass, it could mark an inflection point in the course of efforts to reduce emissions from transportation. CAFE standards and renewable fuels have long occupied the attention of well-funded environmental groups, keeping ideas like smart growth, transit-oriented development, and building walkable communities on the back burner, especially at the national level. But with evidence mounting that biofuels result in more emissions than fossil fuel, and enthusiasm for ethanol waning (at least in Europe), it may be harder for environmentalists to ignore the fact that America is not just addicted to oil, we’re hooked on driving too.

Still, big-time environmental groups have yet to alter their public message. To use the example of the NRDC, their "Beyond Oil" website (pictured above) still puts "Better Cars" and "Better Fuels" front and center, while better land use and transportation planning are lumped under "More Solutions."

There’s more solid evidence that White’s article is part of another welcome trend: big media outlets emphasizing the connection between global warming and the way cities are planned. Leading the pack is Times reporter Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog. In January, Revkin announced that he will make "the urban age… a central focus" of his blog, and so far he is delivering.

  • Don’t wait for Big Environment – Take action now for free public transit.

  • Dave H

    What’s taking them so long? Is it because they are afraid of alienating their wealthy, suburban donors or because they are unsure if livable streets really is a priority in limiting carbon emissions? This is something that has long puzzled me.

  • Cap’n Transit

    Dave, based on my experience with non-transpo environmentalists, they really don’t see liveable streets or transit as a priority. They may pay lip service to transit or bikes, but transit to them means (well-deserved) welfare for their Chicano neighbors, and bikes means driving to the rail-trail.

    Their idea of “environment” hasn’t gotten past the time of John Muir and Rachel Carson. Many are back-to-the-land hippies who think that they’re communing with nature by living on a ranch in Montana or in an A-frame outside of Ithaca. They associate cities and subways with noise, dirt, concrete and industry, and how can those things be ecological?

    When you get inside this worldview, it makes sense that their idea of progressive transportation is fuel cells and biodiesel. How could you be green and still let people live in apartments? Embracing the filthy subway represents a failure to liberate the people from their concrete prisons.

    They really are very nice and well-meaning on the whole, but it can be very hard to get them to see a different side of the issue.

  • Dave H.

    Cap’n Transit,

    I certainly agree this may be what many of the members of NRDC or the Sierra Club may think, but surely the leadership has gotten beyond John Muir. I mean NRDC is made up of scientists and lawyers and other serious types.

    Do you think 1) they’re just plain wrong or 2) we’re wrong, and liveable streets is better sold as a health and safety, community-building issue or 3) they know the truth but are unwilling to admit it because they are afraid of losing support from some class of donors, whether individual or corporate?

    I take it you’re going for answer 1).

  • Jonathan

    Cap’n T, you are right on (“They associate cities and subways with noise, dirt, concrete and industry, and how can those things be ecological?”). The urban vs. suburban question has come up on several different blogs in the last month, including dot earth, and there’s always a comment from someone who wouldn’t trade her peaceful rural existence, far from the noisome crowd, with its composting toilet and vegetable garden, for any amount of vehicle miles traveled.

    Farm life is fantastic if you have the automobile to get you to town and back in 90 minutes. It was less pleasant when the trip took all day by bicycle or horse, especially in the wintertime.

  • The Sierra Club does have strong policies favoring public transit and transit oriented development (=smart growth), and they do work for these things. But I think that, when they plan their major public campaigns, they worry that the public will be offended by any suggestion that they should change their lifestyle: it is much easier to believe that a technofix can solve everything.

    They could succeed by saying that walkable neighborhoods are more livable neighborhoods – that it is a change of lifestyle for the better.

  • Dave H.

    Perhaps it’s time to offend the public.

  • Here’s the Sierra Club’s smart growth campaign in action:

    http://www.railroad.net/forums/viewtopic.php?p=373280#373280
    http://www.poconorecord.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070316/NEWS/703160355

    Do you think 1) they’re just plain wrong or 2) we’re wrong, and liveable streets is better sold as a health and safety, community-building issue or 3) they know the truth but are unwilling to admit it because they are afraid of losing support from some class of donors, whether individual or corporate?

    I take it you’re going for answer 1).

    I honestly don’t know, especially about the NRDC. I don’t think it’s really a matter of intelligence or general education level, I think it’s about being stuck in the back-to-the-land, resource-preservation, nature-conservation worldview.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “When they plan their major public campaigns, they worry that the public will be offended by any suggestion that they should change their lifestyle: it is much easier to believe that a technofix can solve everything.”

    And they are right — something for nothing has been a political winner for three decades. Ask Anthony Weiner. It has to do with the most selfish generations in history. And it goes beyond the environment, to the kind of fiscal issues I write about.

    But the next two years may be a “teachable moment.” Because most people have NO CLUE how bad the economic situation will be over the next two years. No clue. How about this for an ad campaign:

    “For thirty years, we Americans have been sold on something for nothing, and the future has been sacrificed to pay for it. In our relationship with the environment, and dependence on foreign oil. In the taxes and fees we don’t want to pay, and the expensive public benefits we nonetheless expect to receive, with someone else paying the bill someday. In the ever growing goods and services we feel the need to buy, in order to find value in our lives, and the money we borrow to pay for it, without worrying about paying it back. Even in our relationship with family members.”

    “Now that the future has arrived, how is that deal working out for you?”

  • The world population is growing at the rate of one New York City per month. China is putting 2,000 additional cars on the road per day. We don’t have time for Big Environment.
    We need eliminate the auto from towns and cities and give the burbs to the organic farmers. We need a mass movement.

  • and how?

    My theory is that the evangelical environmentalists simply don’t see past the fossil fuel lifestyle, and I honestly believe the overwhelming majority of them have no concept of just how accessible cycling is to ‘mere humans.’ We all must be fitness nuts. I would like to see an effort to get ’em out on their bikes and get some endorphins rollin’ through their veins. They might get all fired up and radical and evangelical and start doin’ Greenpeace kinds of things to the transport system…. capture ten thousand starlings and mildly intoxicate them and drop them on a freeway somewhere or something…

  • cph

    I think most of the enviro groups, although supportive, aren’t necessarily the go-to people for the pro-urban issues discussed on Streetsblog and similar places…

    Sort of like ordering the steak at a seafood restaurant. It may be a very good steak, but that’s not where one would normally go to get a steak….

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